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Asa Peters walked through a grove of Japanese knotweed in the woods of the Massachusetts coast this month and began trimming the dense, towering vegetation on a regular basis.
The 24-year-old Mashpee Wampanoag tribesman was part of a group of volunteers eradicating invasive species and tending to native vegetation recently planted on a large swath of forest acquired on behalf of his tribe recognized by the federal government and other Wampanoag communities.
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“It’s hard. You have to keep pulling and pulling. You start to sweat, but that’s cool,” he said, taking a short break in the sweltering August heat. “We’re just in the early stages, working to create a special place where we can do all kinds of great things.”
Wampanoag Commons, as the project is called, aims to restore a 32-acre former Catholic summer camp on the banks of Muddy Pond in Kingston to something closer to what it might have looked like before European colonization transformed it.
The Native Land Conservancy, the local Indigenous group that received the donated land this year, envisions a natural environment filled with native plants and animals where Wampanoags can practice cultural ceremonies and educate new generations in traditional ways.
Ramona Peters, a Mashpee Wampanoag who founded the reserve, said the effort is all the more significant as the land is about 5 miles from where Pilgrims arriving on the Mayflower established the English colony of Plymouth , near the remains of a Wampanoag community wiped out by European disease.
“That’s basically where the first impact of the colonization of this country happened,” she said. “It is very significant that it was returned to us.”
The Wampanoag Commons is part of a growing movement of Indigenous-led conservation efforts that help preserve and reinvigorate Indigenous culture and identity, said University of California professor Beth Rose-Middleton. in Davis, specializing in Native American environmental policy and conservation. .
Efforts are also essential in the face of climate change, which has seriously harmed indigenous communities, she said. Tribes in Alaska faced with increased erosion, flooding, and thawing permafrost have considered leaving their coastal and riverine lands. Bayou tribes in Louisiana, still reeling from last year’s Hurricane Ida, are bracing for ever more powerful storms, while tribes across the American West face a historic drought that has upended their way of life.
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“A lot of our landscapes and waterscapes have been pushed to extreme uses and depleted,” Rose-Middletown said. “Land stewardship and maintenance work is necessary to create resilient landscapes.”
In Northern California, the Wiyot Tribe has spent more than two decades restoring a badly polluted island that was the site of an 1860 massacre that nearly wiped out the tribe and, more recently, housed a ship repair plant. ships.
Michelle Vassel, the tribe’s administrator, said years of environmental work on Tuluwat has contributed to better water quality and marine habitats in Humboldt Bay.
“For us, it’s a responsibility. Indigenous peoples are tied to a place,” she said. “This work is also healing. The story of the massacre has always been a scar on the wider community. It was a way to change that story.”
Meanwhile, tribes in Wyoming and other Great Plains states have reintroduced bison herds brought to near extinction by European settlers. Those in Washington state and other parts of the Pacific Northwest focus on protecting glacial rivers vital to migrating warm-water salmon and the effects of dams and industrial pollution.
And on the island of Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, the Indigenous-run Sassafras Earth Education has been teaching youth and families traditional Wampanoag cultivation practices for decades.
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The organization’s Land Culture Project aims to transform approximately 20 acres (8 hectares) of woodlands and fields into a “highly productive food forest” of native trees and shrubs beneficial to both people and wildlife. .
“It’s not just about restoring the physical land,” said Saskia Vanderhoop, who founded the organization with her husband, David Vanderhoop, an Aquinnah Wampanoag elder. “It’s also about restoring culture.”
In the nearby Wampanoag Common Lands, old summer camp buildings have been demolished and sidewalks, sports fields and other hard surfaces have been scraped this year.
Even the large, non-native Norwegian spruce trees were uprooted by previous owners at the request of conservation, leaving mostly a bare clearing near the water’s edge.
In their place, conservation staff and volunteers planted dozens of native species important to Wampanoag culture this summer, such as white oaks, blueberries, witch hazel, goldenrod and hay-scented ferns.
Wildlife cameras have been installed to monitor and monitor otters, deer and other local animals. The conservation is also building bat houses and considering reintroducing endangered and rare native animal species, such as northern red-bellied turtles, said Diana Ruiz, director of the Native Land Conservancy.
The organization is also exploring other uses, such as traditional Wampanoag lodges to accommodate guests or other community functions.
“We don’t just think of it as this closed system that humans sometimes visit,” she said. “We see it as a space where the Wampanoag community can reconnect with their ancestral homeland in an active and profound way.”
For Asa Peters, this potential for spiritual revitalization is what he finds most compelling about the field project.
He looks forward to returning years and decades from now to not only see how the plants he helped nurture are taking root, but also how the Wampanoags are using the restored land.
“I hope it will be a beautiful, comfortable space,” Peters said. “A place where people can come and it helps fill them up.”